Colourisation of old images enables greater empathy

Using creative methods to engage with historical footage does not detract from original

It was with tremendous interest and vehement disagreement that I read a recent article in this newspaper by Prof Diarmaid Ferriter, in which he made the case that "colourisation undermines the essence of old photos." So much interest and disagreement, in fact, that I feel compelled to make the counter-case. The professor took issue with recently released colourised footage recorded by a Fox Movietone News cameraman in Liscannor in the 1920s. He believes that RTÉ News'presentation of that story as an example of technology bringing this old footage "to life" is erroneous. I respectfully disagree.

What the newsreader specifically said was that the archival footage had been given “new life”. What is wrong with that? This does not detract from the “life” intrinsic to the original footage. Clearly though, this vivacity must not have been as potent in the original. Denise Reynolds, the daughter of Kate Leyden, who was filmed in the 1920s and who features in the colourised footage, positively beamed on camera as she described how it meant “the absolute world” to her and her family. Would the black-and-white footage have stirred this same depth of emotional connection? I think not.

In addition, the archive has not been colourised. Colourised reproductions have been created. This may seem like a minor distinction but it is a most important one for me as an archivist. With diplomatics (the study of the critical analysis of documents) forming a significant module of my professional training, there are important evidential values that an original record has over any sort of reproduction, no matter how faithful it is to the original. In the case of colourisation, the primary source material has not been colourised, it remains available and untouched. To describe it as “tampering” with the original is pejorative and inaccurate. Rather, it has been presented through the interpretation of colourisation technology. If we are to get into the weeds of establishing authenticity, the black-and-white footage available from the online archive is itself only a representation of the original film through a digital medium, and not the original itself.

Invoking UCD art historian Emily Mark-FitzGerald, Ferriter argues that, through colourisation, “the development choices of the original photographer are lost”, as are the “tonality, richness and grain . . . which are all part of the photo’s history and materiality”. That’s true, and all well and good if the materiality of old photos was what appeals most broadly to people and most engages us. It is not, however, and there is an air of elitism about the assertion. Photographs and film are a relatively unstable medium which degrades over time – would retouching them for the purpose of interpretation be considered acceptable or is this also “interfering with materiality”? And what about speed-corrected footage, where the unnaturally rapid, somewhat comical pace of life in old film is slowed down to present it at its natural speed? Is this considered a degradation of the materiality of the original?


By extension, similar claims could be made about the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series, which selects, reproduces and contextualises records from the Department of Foreign Affairs in published form. Or the painter Mick O’Dea’s artistic representations of historical photographs in exhibitions such as Black and Tan, Trouble and The Split. Or when we, at the Military Archives, crop or filter images and documents for social media. If this is the case, then what about the historian, who takes the primary sources acquired, preserved and made available by archivists and presents their own interpretation through the medium of narrative text?

The colourised version is more faithful to the visual experience of those who were there

Ferriter asks whether colourisation actually brings people closer to their history. In my opinion, the answer is yes, it absolutely does. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and the anecdotal evidence alone of the popularity of colourised photography and film speaks for itself. In regard to Peter Jackson’s 2018 film, They Shall Not Grow Old, which featured colourised footage of the first World War, Ferriter asks if we are “really seeing the war, for the first time, as they saw it?” This question is a little bit more complex, but the fact is that our species has evolved to perceive a rich colour palette. It is intrinsic to how we see and interact with our environment. Yes, the colourised version is more faithful to the visual experience of those who were there. The vast majority of us do not see in monochrome. Faithful and careful colourisation of black-and-white photography and film brings a sense of immediacy, by displacing it from existing within a particular artistic mode (black-and-white) that psychologically implies distance of time and commonality.

It might be a useful thought experiment to reverse engineer this. The social theorist and philosopher Mark Fisher spoke about the addition of “crackle” to modern digital recordings by musical artists to invoke a sense of the materiality of vinyl and a disruption of the temporality of the present. Similarly, the modern application of black-and-white, sepia, noise or grain filters to colour images taps into a specific set of associations with a cultural mode connected with the past. In the example of colourisation it is a case, to quote Marshall McLuhan, that “the medium is the message”. It is not the content of an individual colourised photo or piece of film that is important but the current advancement in digital technology that allows us to engage with the past in this new way. This does not mean that the content is not important in and of itself, but that the cultural effect of this new technology is independent of it. As this idea was advanced by McLuhan and is increasingly understood by contemporary artificial intelligence researchers, digital technology is an extension of our central nervous system. While the interface between mind and machine is still slow, this technology represents the growth of new nerve tendrils. And what this new virtual nerve pathway communicates to our collective synapses most powerfully is empathy.

It would be churlish to suggest that we do not empathise with anyone born before the advent of colour film, but it would be naive to ignore the fact that proximity breeds empathy. One of the most powerful and significant uses of colourisation technology has been Faces of Auschwitz, a collaboration between the Auschwitz-Berkenau Museum, journalists, academics and volunteers which colourised photographs to startling effect. Most striking are the colourised camp registration photographs, which serve to make every face, every bruise, every scratch and every terrified pair of eyes shockingly and heartbreakingly present.

So why the objections from certain quarters, to colourisation? I only have theories but I’m happy to share them. A few years ago I attended a briefing in advance of a release of material from the Military Service Pensions Collection – one of the major initiatives of the Irish State, Department of Defence and Defence Forces as part of the Decade of Centenaries, which catalogues and publishes online the pension records relating to military service during Ireland’s revolutionary period. In a spirit of good-natured and humorous mischief, someone made a remark to the project’s Academic Advisory Group (consisting of a selection of prominent academic historians) that one thing Ireland has no shortage of is historians, so they should consider themselves honoured to be there. I have tremendous respect and admiration for Irish historians, not least Prof Ferriter, and I have seen first-hand their genuine passion and their generosity of time and spirit. I believe, however, that, in addressing the Decade of Centenaries, we as a society have appointed historians as primary gatekeepers. The focus has been almost exclusively on the past. I would have liked to have heard more from the sociologists, the political scientists, the psychologists, the philosophers and many other disciplines, about where we are now at this end of the centenary, and where we might be heading . Modern archival pedagogy and praxis reflects the evolution of the profession from being the guardians of bureaucratic evidence and “handmaidens to historians” to one characterised by an increased awareness of our profession as unique and distinct from that of historians, through interdisciplinary practice, facilitation and community collaboration. The archivist Verne Harris described the archive as “but a sliver of social memory” and “a sliver of a window”, challenging the misconception that the archive is a mirror of reality. Memory, as the philosopher Alan Watts described it, is not a storage system but a dynamic system. Our history, and our collective memory, is not a series of links in a chain that bind us to the past, but the wake of a ship on the water. It shows us where we’ve been, but it is not driving the ship. It is imperative, therefore, that we constantly engage with the historic record in new and creative ways. Otherwise the tail is wagging the dog.

So keep on enjoying and appreciating the colourised photos and films. There is an archivist somewhere keeping the original records safe and their materiality fully intact.

Commandant Daniel Ayiotis is Officer-in-Charge of the Irish Military Archives